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  • Virginia Tolles

The Worries of Writing


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So, I like to write fiction for the simple enjoyment of writing. For serious writing, I do not hesitate to research topics about which I know very little. In fact, I enjoy the research as much, if not more, than the writing. For my R&R (rest and recreation) writing, however, I write how I think things probably are. Bad mistake! Twice, just yesterday, I stopped to check items I questioned. In both cases, my assumptions were wrong!


Lesson: Never assume! Do your research!


Something else happened yesterday. After the aforementioned frustrations, I took a break from writing and went back to read some of my old writing. I picked out a story I wrote about seven years ago and read through it. It was good! It was also very similar to what I had been writing when the frustrations hit. Reason: The protagonist was the same person.


Lesson: We see our characters a certain way and won't deviate very far from how we see them, no matter how many drafts or stories about them we may write. Accept it! Instead of trying to write a new story about the same character, improve the first story about her or him. True! That story could be excellent if I went back and worked on it.


I've read three really good pieces of advice about writing. I don't remember where I read them -- from different sources, no doubt -- so let me offer full credit to those long-forgotten sages:


* "When writing a story about a bear, bring on the bear." In short, don't float around, describing the earth, the sky, and the sea. Bring on the action! You can describe the scenery and introduce the characters in the next chapter. Consider, for example, a television detective show. The crime quite often is committed in the lead-in. Then, we see the opening credits. Then, we see the detectives receiving news of the crime and setting out to solve it.


Jack Lord, who portrayed the original Steve McGarrett, described the process as being "as rigid as a sonnet." Sonnets always have 14 lines. They always have a regular rhyme scheme. They always have an unchanging meter, usually iambic pentameter that seems almost musical in its beat. Such was why, he said, the original Hawaii Five-0 told very little of the detectives' personal lives. There was no room for it in the Five-0 sonnet. Very few episodes departed from this practice.


* "Show, don't tell." This is not an easy skill to master, for it requires us to become highly adept at writing descriptions. We show the reader by painting pictures, only using words, instead of paint. I have a long way to go in this regard. Maybe it's because I've written more non-fiction than fiction. In non-fiction, we have facts with which to work. The names, dates, and places actually exist; all we have to do is tell what happened. In fiction, we have to tell how the characters reached the point where something happened.


Consider Erich Segal's Love Story. He begins the story with the line "What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?" Yet, the girl doesn't die until the end of the book. In the middle, we learn about the narrator's relationship with, later marriage to, the girl. By the time she dies, we know why the narrator hurts as badly as he does.


* Disregard the old saw "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water." That is, don't be afraid to delete our favorite parts of the work if doing so helps to move the story along. Favorite scenes can be dangerous, for we become caught up in them and forget where the story is supposed to be going. A romantic wine-and-cheese scene on a moonlit beach is lovely -- unless we are supposed to be going after a culprit in which case romance should wait.


This is true in real life, too. Consider what happens to our final exams if we take time out from studying to enjoy a romantic wine-and-cheese date on a moonlit beach. The date won't seem very romantic if our posted grade is too embarrassing for others to see beside our name. Better to save the romantic date until exams are over -- or until the epilogue, in the case of writing.


Perhaps, most of all, we need to remember that nearly every writer starts off a little wet behind the ears. We develop our skills as we go along, until we reach an apex, when our writing is at its best. There are exceptions, of course. Erich Segal never wrote another book as touching or effective as Love Story. Margaret Mitchell never wrote another book as great as Gone With the Wind. Some people just have one story in them. Most of us, however, learn and grow as we go along.


One more thought: I said I find it easier to write non-fiction. So, why do I torment myself over writing fiction? I'll never be able to write fiction like either Erich Segal or Margaret Mitchell. But I've pulled my grades up with research papers. My website, now eleven years old, is still receiving compliments from those who find it. Most of all, I enjoy it more than I have enjoyed any of my fiction (with one notable exception), even though I torment over it to some extent. But that's a topic for another article.

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